Drivers in the Chicago and Houston area have been scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by unscrupulous tow truck drivers, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). The NICB has issued public service announcements and billboard ads warning drivers about the scam.
Following a car accident, dishonest tow truck drivers are convincing drivers to sign blank documents authorizing the tow, and then adding other charges that may not have been performed or were even necessary, according to the NICB. In many cases, the tow truck drivers are associated with or operated by auto body repair shops that add extra charges.
For example, after a car accident in Chicago, one driver was charged $4,700 for the tow, storage and other fees, which included a $290 “COVID-19” cleaning fee. (Insurance fraud investigators have urged consumers to be on the lookout for COVID-19 insurance scams.)
The tow truck scam is meant to take advantage of car accident victims who are shaken up by the experience. While the focus of the NICB’s public service announcements have been in the Chicago and Houston area, this type of scam can take place anywhere in the United States.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau has issued a warning for tow truck scams
If you’re in a car accident, the NICB offers these tow truck tips:
- If you or the police did not call the tow truck driver to the scene, do not deal with the operator.
- Never give permission to an unsolicited tow truck to take your car.
- Don’t give tow truck drivers your car insurance information.
- Don’t give tow truck drivers your car’s lien holder information.
- Verify that the signage on the tow truck is identical to what appears on the documentation for the tow.
- If the tow truck does not display signage identifying the name of the tow company, ask for company identification.
- If you doubt the tow operator’s legitimacy, call the police.
Additionally, the NICB recommends you get the following information before you allow a tow truck to haul away your car:
- A printed price list
- Daily storage fees
- Any miscellaneous charges that will apply if your car is towed
- Documentation about where the vehicle will be towed (if it’s not to a location of your choice)
If the prices seem too high, ask the police or your insurance company to call a towing service for you.
The NICB has provided an accident and fraud prevention checklist.
Other Types of Tow Truck Scams
While most tow truck operators are honest, it’s a good idea to be aware of some common types of tow truck scams:
- Gate fees are when an impound lot charges a “gate fee,” “labor fee” or “release fee” to have someone open the gate. These types of fees may be illegal in your state.
- Inflated fees happen when a tow truck company charges fees above your insurance company’s policy limits and then demands you to pay the difference. It’s a good idea to get your insurance company involved if you suspect a tow truck company inflates its fees. For example, owners of a tow truck company in Philadelphia were indicted last year for allegedly inflating their fees more than five times the industry standard.
- Patrol towing is when a tow truck operator has a spotter on the lookout for illegally parked cars. The spotter notifies the operator (also known as a “bandit”), who then tows the car to an impound lot, where you might be charged inflated or unnecessary fees.
- Steering is when a tow truck driver comes upon an accident (they often monitor police scanners) and tries to convince you to tow your car to a shop they’re collaborating with. Steering is illegal in most states.
More Tips to Fight Tow Truck Scams
Here are some other steps you can take to prevent tow truck scams:
- Use the body shop of your choice. Don’t let a tow truck operator steer you to a shop. Chances are they’re affiliated with the shop and looking to make a buck. If a tow truck driver refuses to take your car to your shop of choice, call another tow truck company.
- Use credit cards. A tow truck company that demands cash only may be part of an illegitimate operation.
- Take photos. Use your cell phone to photograph the scene of the accident, including the tow truck.
- Ask for photos if you were towed for “illegal parking.” In many states, a tow truck operator must take a photo of your car showing that it was parked in an illegal spot.
- Ask the tow truck driver to unhook your vehicle. In some states (such as Oregon), if you are present at the time of the tow and the hookup is not complete, you cannot be charged. If the hookup is complete and the operator unhooks it, you shouldn’t be charged for the tow (but you can be charged a hookup fee).
- Challenge the fee. In some states, such as Michigan, towing and storage fees are agreed upon between the tow company and the local police. If you think you’ve been overcharged, check with the police department.
- File a complaint. If you think you’ve been taken advantage of by a dishonest tow truck operator, you can contact your insurance company and your local police department.
A Roadside Assistance Plan Is a Good Solution
Scammers like to prey on people who are understandably shaken, inexperienced and confused following a car accident. Most folks don’t get into car accidents on a regular basis, and if their car isn’t driveable, they might not know what to do. If an unsolicited tow truck driver shows up, they seem to be offering an immediate solution to your immediate problem.
But if you have roadside assistance, you might already have the solution to your problem. Most roadside assistance plans have a towing benefit. If you get into a car accident, you know who to call for a tow. And you may not have to pay for the tow (or only a portion of it), depending on the plan. For example, AAA offers free towing up to a certain number of miles, depending on your membership level.
A good roadside assistance plan can also address other problems that may have disabled your car, like a flat tire, dead battery, getting locked out of the car or running out of gas. You won’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers or worry about a dishonest tow truck operator.
You can typically get a roadside assistance plan through your car insurance company, car warranty, credit card or a motor club such as AAA.